Ahead of Parliamentary business over two key financial matters - a Supplementary Estimate and an Amendment to the Appropriation Act for 2016, the Government was facing a dilemma as 30 of its members had gone overseas, most without approval even.
This bewildered the Government leaders, and Leader of the House, Highways and Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella wondered whether the ruling side could rope in enough votes for the passage of these two items, if a division were called for by the Opposition.
At the Government’s Parliamentary group meeting conducted on Monday evening, the absence of MPs was a topic taken up and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was nervous about it. It transpired that 30 had left the country. Of course, a few had gone to New York along with President Maithripala Sirisena to attend the UN General Assembly sessions. They were excused, but not others.
It transpired that most of these members went despite instruction by the leadership that none should undertake foreign trips during sitting weeks of Parliament.
On Tuesday evening, ahead of the vote of a motion, Government National List MP Prof. Ashu Marasinghe rushed to the room of the Leader of the House and alerted him on the number of those present, when the debate was in progress. Mr. Kiriella, as the key person responsible for legislative work, asked him to instruct all present to be seated in the House well ahead of the possible vote. Altogether, 62 had arrived and marked their presence at the time. A division was not called fortunately for the Government, and it could ensure the passage of it without any hurdle on the way.
Delay in executing small projects, MPs perturbed
Apart from Parliamentary business, Monday’s group meeting headed by the Prime Minister discussed the delay in the execution of small scale development projects due to tender processes.
Some members suggested that contracts for the execution of such small projects should be awarded to community organisations outside a tender process to save time and accelerate work.
Yet, the open bidding process was what the Government was committed to follow in awarding contracts ensuring transparency and accountability.
The Prime Minister was not in favour of deviating from the process as a result. Before the elections, the Government crowed over corruption involved in offering contract without any openness during the previous rule and committed to correct it.
SLFP hailed for successful convention at previous group meeting
The meeting started with the presentation of the minutes of the previous group meeting held on September 5. It was the meeting conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Convention of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) as a key constituent of the national unity government with the United National Party(UNP).
The UNP, at this meeting, commended SLFP Secretary Duminda Dissanayake and Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera for their efforts in what it called ‘the successful conclusion of the Convention with a massive rally. The Prime Minister noted that the mammoth crowd at the SLFP Convention spoke of the positive attitude of people towards the Unity Government despite misinformation being spread. He stressed the importance of making the UNP Convention also a success in a similar fashion.
UNP MP Nalin Bandara Jayamaha also expressed his views on the SLFP Convention and said it served as a yardstick to measure the public support for the Unity Government.
It looks as if the success of the unity government depends on cooperation and collaboration of the two parties. If they part ways, it will be detrimental to both sides.
Having this in mind, the two sides strategically decided on working together as otherwise, it would spell political doom for them. The two sides have to proceed along hand-in-hand despite conflicting situations arising at grassroots level among members of the two parties.
Committee appointed to see the way forward for Unity Government
Mr. Dissanayake, the SLFP General Secretary, notified to the group that a committee had been appointed to see how the affairs of the Unity Government should be conducted. In case of any conflicting atmosphere between the members of two parties in an electorate, he said it should be discussed with the electoral organizer concerned rather than referring them to the top leadership.
MPs want fertiliser subsidy for all crops
Besides, several MPs expressed their concern over the limitation of fertiliser subsidy to one crop. They saw it as a discouragement of farmers diversifying their cultivations. Mr. Dissanayake said the Government took a policy decision to release cash subsidy instead of materials for farmers to make purchases in the open market. Also, he said the subsidy could not be extended to other crops because of a decision by the Finance Ministry.
“We can give it only for one crop-paddy. We cannot extend it to others due to a decision by the Finance Ministry. If other food crops are to be covered, the government has to take a decision,” he said.
Also, he said agriculture extension officials would be deployed to villages to gather information about farmers who did not cultivate despite getting cash subsidies.
“They will not be entitled to the benefit this time,’ he said.
Adding a new dimension to the debate over the fertiliser subsidy, Government MP Ven.. Aturaliye Rathana Thera said the repeated cultivation of the same crop had resulted in increased use of agrochemicals.
“The exclusion of other crops has discouraged farmers from diversifying their cultivations. Crop diversification is essential for soil conservation and retention of natural fertility. As an incentive for farmers to opt for a variety of crops, subsidies should be extended,” he said.
Public Administration Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara joined the debate, and said farmers in his electoral district of Moneragala were an impoverished lot. Therefore, he stressed the need to subsidise a variety of crops for them to benefit.
Ravi K rules out fertiliser subsidy for all crops
Having listened to all viewpoints from the members of both sides in the Government, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake ruled out the possibility to extend the fertiliser subsidy to cultivate a mix of crops by a single farmer. He said the Government was grappling with financial restraints due to the high cost involved in debt servicing.
In the meantime, UNP MP Wijepala Hettiarachchi said though cash subsidy was given to farmers in his Galle District, only nine percent of them had utilised it for cultivation.
The Agriculture Minister replied that cash subsidy was released after assessing the amount of land extent to be cultivated in proportion to the level of water available in respective irrigation tanks.
Amidst a chorus of support for crop diversification, UNP MP Sydney Jayaratne held a different viewpoint regarding his Polonnaruwa District.
He said the lands in Polonnaruwa were suited to paddy cultivation only, and therefore crop diversification would be unsuccessful there. Therefore, he said a proper study should be done to identify crops suited for each area before taking a final decision on the extension of the subsidy.
China offers familiarisation visit for all MPs in batches
In its engagement with Sri Lanka for fostering ties, China has become the only country in the world to offer familiarisation visits to all 225 MPs in batches.
After the formation of the new Parliament in September last year, three batches of MPs from all hues have visited China. One batch of MPs and officials concluded their tour and returned on Tuesday morning.
In the lobby of Parliament, they were exchanging pleasantries about the nitty-gritty of the visit and the hospitality afforded to them by the Chinese authorities.
Another batch, under the leadership of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, is slated to undertake a visit very soon. In this manner, all 225 MPs of the current Parliament are going to get a chance of traveling in China and interacting with its leaders both on bilateral relations between the two countries and the new world order.
Sri Lanka is an important country for China in the new emerging world.
China has launched its ambitious economic expansion project called ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Route.’
The trade artery, fundamental for transnational trade in the new world, lies below Sri Lanka. As such, the country has drawn the attention of powerhouses of the world. China’s engagement with Sri Lanka has to be analysed in this context only.
Seeing is believing is a traditional Chinese saying, and China seems to be going by it when offering increased people to people contacts.
Wide agreement on electoral reforms, but SLMC differs
The Steering Committee working on proposals for a new Constitution is to submit its report before November for Parliament to consider. It is in discussion of electoral reforms, the Executive Presidency and devolution of powers. Of these, wide agreement has been reached on electoral reforms. However, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Minister Rauff Hakeem is harbouring differences as he seeks an arrangement for Muslims scattered throughout the country outside the north and the east, when enacting new electoral reforms as a part of the Constitution. Mr. Hakeem made a presentation to the Committee.
Dissension within JO over participation in Steering Committee
The Joint Opposition or the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is represented mainly by its Parliamentary group leader Dinesh Gunawardane in the Committee.
It is learnt that dissension brewing within the Joint Opposition over participation in the deliberations of the Steering Committee.
Particularly, National Freedom Front (NFF) led by Wimal Weerawansa, as an ally of the Joint Opposition, sees the whole process as a charade. In his public lectures, he says the Western world is determining the contours of the new Constitution with a power sharing deal, and the Steering Committee is there only to rubbers-tamp it.
So, the party believes that the Joint Opposition should stay away from the Steering Committee activities.